Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Fight at Ulianovo: Red Recon in Action

I'll attempt to make the argument here that what the world needs more than ever are good WWII scenarios to game, rather than another set of WWII rules.  

I've been on the hunt lately for historical scenarios that I can use for Flames of War battles (or that I can shoe-horn for other rules), maybe with the aim of putting on a good convention game.

I like Flames of War alot for what it delivers.  What I do not like are the stylized, tournament styled scenarios in the rules, preferring historical scenarios using the Flames of War rules.  (and there ways to reconcile both, IE finding similar situations to the tournament scenarios from a historical battle and selecting similar forces - more on that another time).

The Battlefront website has a big collection of great historical scenarios but for this post, I'll explore another resource I tried out that I completely forgot about - the Skirmish Campaigns series.  Following the advice of world-class gaming hero Paul OG, many years ago I purchased "GrossDeutschland at Kursk" and "Red Guards at Kursk" Skirmish Campaigns books for use in developing Battlegroup: Kursk games.  I've been down this road before, and if you've been reading the blog long enough (11 years going) you might remember this post with Battlegroup: Kursk and a 15mm skirmish action.

I had an idea about using the scenarios from the Skirmish Campaigns books for use in Flames of War or Crossfire (or Battlegroup) battles enabling me to put a historical challenge on the table.  This post is about the planning and playtest for Scenario 1 in "Red Guards at Kursk" aptly named "Red Recon" and puts us at the jump-off point of Operation Kutuzov on 11 July 1943.

On the 11th of July 1943, the Soviet forces task organized under "Operation Kutuzov" began "small scale" attacks in preparation for the opening of the Soviet counter-offensive at Kursk on 12 July  The scenario pits a Soviet platoon against a dug-in understrength German platoon to capture multiple buildings at a crossroads or destroy the radio.  Clearly we're aiming for bigger games than that, but what about using the OOB in Skirmish Campaigns and "scaling up" - meaning a squad is a platoon or company?  That's exactly what I did.  Instead of destroying the radio, Soviets had to destroy the Command Post with the Grenadier Company HQs, which also houses the radio.

Soviets starting from the top (north) and must destroy the CP or capture all buildings.  Germans are in 2 successive trenchlines in the center.

The Soviets, which are elements of 26th Guards Rifle Division, 8th Guards Rifle Corps fielded a Battalion HQs, "Hero Rifle Company of 10 stands, a "Storm Group" of 5 SMG stands, ATR, 2 x HMGs, and a flame thrower, and, my favorite, a Soviet Scout platoon of 7 x stands (their first time in combat since they were painted).  Combined total points are 35.

Entire Soviet force - Company, Scouts, and "Storm Group" - all from the "Enemy at the Gates" book

The Germans, which are elements of 306th Infantry Regiment, 211th Infantry Division, consist of a Grenadier Company Headquarters, 2 x full strength Grenadier Platoons with HMG attachments, and a sniper.  Combined points are 35.
2 x full Grenadier platoons in "trenches" - I need to build some trenches.  The CP is in one of the houses but the Soviets won't know which.  I diced for this after the first turn.

I think the points will get us into trouble in a bit and that harkens an entirely new debate but for now let's talk about the playtest of the scenario.  The Soviets must 1. locate and destroy the command post OR 2. capture all buildings.  The Germans must avoid this.  6 full turns, then each turn after 6 we will roll to end the game.  If on turn 7 a "1" is rolled, the game ends.  On turn 8 a "1" or a "2" is rolled, etc.

I did use the special "Spearhead" rule for the Scouts and they get a free 12" move to expand the Soviet deployment area (which I did NOT take advantage of)

Hero Rifle Company at the start line 

Soviet scouts skulk their way up to the their "Spearhead" start line +12"

Im immensely proud of my Soviet Scouts and was looking forward to getting them on the table.  Forward you scum!  This is our first battle on the table!  We'd better not die!

The Soviet push through the woods is uneventful and the Scouts start on the right shielded by a large woods as well.  The Germans do not spot anything yet...

Picking their way through the forest, Soviet infantry know what's up ahead...

note the rifle company and "Storm Group's" advance on the left and the scouts all tucked in cozy next to the woods on the right.  The Soviet company on the left will approach the 2" line for Line of Sight and will be targeted by German HMGs...

During the German turn, the Soviets are spotted and 2 teams are engaged by 2 x HMGs in sustained fire mode!  12 shooting dice hitting on "4s" guarantees some casualties and the Hero Rifle Company is pinned.  An inauspicious start to Operation Kutuzov!

Soviet Rifles pinned!
Machine gun tracer fire rips through the pine forest and limbs and branches fall on the ducking, crawling, and cowering Soviet troopers.  Men look to their leaders for instructions as the lethal German fire tears into the lead squad.

Meanwhile on the right, Soviet scouts reach the far edge of the woodline and spot the houses on the Ulianovo road.  The "maskirovka is working" as the Hero rifle company is engaged, the scouts slip past the first trenchline towards the houses...

Soviet scouts eyeing the terrain before them.

On turn 2, the Soviet Hero Company fails to rally from Pinned status as the German HMGs continue to hammer away at them.

German HMGs in the trenchline

War weary Landsers await the attack with dread.

 On turn 3 the Soviets unpin and make for the treeline.  The plan is to keep the first trenchline engaged while the storm group races forward to engage the right side of the second trenchline.  It's all a diversion so the scouts can assault the buildings.

Soviet scouts burst from the treeline on the right to assault the building.  Just one problem - it's a bunker...
The Germans rolled for reinforcements and the command post is actually in a BUNKER.  Bunkers are big trouble in Flames of War (hell - they're big trouble in any game or actual battle).  I rolled to see if this is a pillbox or a nest - luckily it's "just" a nest but the Bunker status means the house cannot be assaulted except from the front.  Guess what's in front?  Yes - a trenchline full of veteran grenadiers...
By luck of the die roll, the house closest to you houses the German CP (and radio) ....and is a bunker.

The Scouts move out to assault the bunker and maybe even win the game.  Then I read the rules for bunkers and realize it cannot be assault except from the front.  Change of plans.  We're going to assault the MG on the left flank of the trenchline - enter the trenchline and work our way towards the house so it can be assaulted.  The only easy day was yesterday!

Turn 3 Soviet rifles unpin and make for the treeline to engage the Germans in the first trench, holding them up.  There are 3 HMGs targeting the trenchline now but it's not able to pin the Germans.

Any man not shooting, will be himself shot!

THe close combat in front of the house is intense but eventually goes the Germans' way.  The HMG stand is taken out and the Grenadiers closest to the house retreat 6".  The Soviet Scouts gain a foothold in the trenchline!  What they wouldn't give for a flamethrower!

Scouts in the trenchline!  NExt turn they will assault the bunker (lower right)

German turn 4 maneuvering against the Scouts in the trenchline.  It's a nasty fight with grenades, entrenching tools, pistols, machine pistols, bayonets, and fists.

The next turn, the Soviets assault the bunker/CP and knock both teams out!  THe Scouts have eliminated the Command Post (a very Soviet scout task) but the game isn't over yet.  The German grenadiers mass to counter-attack the Scouts in the trench and in the bunker - but the bunker has new owners.

Soviets fending off attack after attack in the trenchline

At turn 6, the Soviets go for broke.  They know the Scouts are toast and cant keep going toe to toe with the Grenadiers and so the Hero Rifle Company breaks from cover in an almost suicidal frontal attack.  The Storm Group also moves out to assault the second trenchline.  

As the German player you'd have some significant options to consider right now.  Do you risk not covering the right flank with the Grenadier platoon, knowing that Engineer Storm Group is coming your way by launching everyone to counterattack against the scouts?  Or do you sit tight thinking the main attack is coming on YOUR right with those conventional forces?  The Germans risk it all and counter attack the scouts.  

A lone sniper is left to hold the right flank.  1 hit is enough to pin an entire platoon.  And pin them he does!  The storm group, probably the premier Russian unit of the entire "Enemy at the Gates" force, is pinned by a single figure!  

storm group in upper right is pinned!  you dont want those guys anywhere near your defense

One man to hold down the entire flank?

On turn 7 I rolled a 1 and the game ended.  The Soviets managed to destroy the command post, thus winning the game but there were some definite lessons learned if this game is to be run for other folks.  The Hero Rifle Company was reduced to 4 stands (2 squads) and the Storm Group never was able to un pin itself.  The Scouts were eventually forced out of the trenchline and into the open.  While the 2nd platoon in the second trench had not more HMGs, they were still the undisputed masters of the crossroads.

Some thoughts on "Balance"
This is a hotly debated topic and most folks would rightly claim that in real battle, generals don't commit to a balanced fight.  They commit forces where there is clear advantage.  In the "Skirmish Campaigns" book, the Russians outnumber the Germans by 2:1.  Here there is a clear 1:1 force laydown and both side have equal "points" - meaning that both sides should have a reasonable chance at victory.  I do like that because I want the best general to win if I'm hosting.  

In applying FoW Victory conditions, the Soviets would likely NOT have been able to hold an objective however with committing either the Storm Group or the Hero Rifles or both along with the scouts along the same axis, they may have.  More play-testing is obviously needed but my first thoughts during the game were that the Soviets needed another company on the table to outnumber the Germans by almost 2:1.  (adding 10 more stands would still not achieve those numbers)  Part of me also considered mortars or artillery, but the spirit of this action is supposed to be a reconnaissance.  My scenario is obviously a "reconnaissance in force" - but it's still an operation where scouts are needed - hence the lack of significant heavy weapons.

For the next game - i'll play with some modifications - namely -

The Germans will use the reduced platoon numbers and likely only have 5 or 7 stands, not 9.

The Germans will only have 1 x HMG each.

The bunker was a nice addition to the game and would add considerable tension if the Soviet player didn't know about it (i found out when I researched the rules on bunkers - this is when my scouts were already poised to attack it - that's exactly the kind of thing that would have happened in real life).

Final Thoughts

You CAN use Skirmish Campaigns for historical Flames of War battles but you have to consider all of the advantages and disadvantages each force has, as well as the advantages bestowed by terrain or fortifications.  In this instance, the trenchline makes the Germans extremely hard to kill, with hits occurring on a "6" and "gone to ground" status in effect even when they move in the trench!  If you thought the bunker was a tough nut to crack, welcome to the joys of trench warfare.

I'm going to run the scenario with roughly the same ratios again, but with slightly smaller German platoons (this is after Kursk shot its bolt, after all).  I want it to be a nail biter for both forces, with huge gambles taken.  The Soviets paid for sending in the scouts alone (the Storm Group is obviously not to be wasted in a frontal assault...) but the gamble of assaulting wiht the scouts paid off with the destruction of the Command Post (and clenching victory in the game).  So the Red Recon in Action scenario is still a work in progress and I have more "work" to do in fine tuning it for a convention fight.

All in all, a very fun game and that's what it's all about.  The Skirmish Campaigns books offer a wealth of history, scenario potential, and ideas for the budding scenario designer.  For this wargamer, the discussion is turning away from "rules" and more towards good scenarios where I can get lots of toys on the table.  Mission Accomplished!


  1. Fantastic spectacle Steve - what a great game. I agree; the world needs scenarios not more rules.I have completely missed FoW over the years, though your post is making me start to consider it again.

    1. Cheers Darren there's something to be said for playing rules you know and that you like. For bigger games, I like them and for the most part I'm familiar with them.

  2. I really like the "Red Guards at Kursk" scenarios, although I scaled most of them back up to brigade size as they are generally bath tubbed versions of much bigger battles. The Red Recon scenario is quite winnable for the Germans with the original force ratios, even if scaled up to battalion vs company due to the German fortifications and all that horrible open ground in front.

    1. Cheers, Martin, it wasn't the Germans I was worried about! The Soviets really had to work to move around the trench lines as the German HMGs tore them up. Going to try the scenario again with pushing the storm group to the right behind the scouts. Give them a fighting chance against those landsers!

  3. Good read Steve and as always a nice table with good story telling action shots. I’m always interested in scenario construction and destruction! and like the idea of upscaling a scenario. On initial reading, I thought the Soviets did rather better than I thought they would.

    From a fog of war point of view, it might be worth hiding the identity of the bunker / command post (from both players) until the very last possible moment.

    Now that you have said it, scenarios being the better focus rather than the rules, seems so obvious! We would be better with sophistication in our scenarios instead of complexity in our rules.

    Having said that, I put a One Hour Wargame scenario on the table today, with other rules and had a fab time with the simplicity of the scenario …… but, clearly, while the scenarios knit perfectly with the OHW rules, some things jarred when applying the rules that I was using.

    1. Thank you Norm I actually got the idea thinking about your recent comments on playing rules you like more, in order to gain familiarity with them. Something I've noticed around my struggles with boredom with gaming lately are that stylized scenarios are better with another person, and historical scenarios are much more satisfying solo. Hence my fascination with historical actions as basis for my next games. The scenario makes a huge difference in my own personal satisfaction, regardless of rules. I'm going to make more scenarios to play this year, and gain some fun experiences along the way.
      I planned on playing the 1HW scenarios with Horse and Musket rules (specifically black powder) this year as well.
      Also as you said it was much fun realizing the bunker could only be assaulted from the front.! Talk about fog of war the entire plan had to change in an instant.

  4. Fabulous looking figures Steve and interesting AAR and wash-up. Just a comment: weren't the Fascists a little over-confident with their flanks in the air?

    1. Thank you sir! If you look closely, the flanks of the trench lines are slightly "refused" but you're right they were pretty over confident in their setup. In both setups I weighted the flanks with HMGs to protect them a little better but those Soviet scouts took them right out in the second trenchline.

  5. Excellent looking setup and game, Steve. The Skirmish Campaign books are great resources for scenario development but so too are the piles of SL and ASL scenarios. I have converted ASL scenarios to miniatures a number of times. Successfully too!

    1. Thanks Jon. Squad leader offers a plethora of scenarios that are often overlooked. I'm purchasing a few more of the skirmish campaign books and once I exhaust that list, I'll look to ASL.